…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;
This is an interesting quote from a treaty with Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797 (the first president and vice president respectively) because the common perception is that America is perhaps the most religious country in the world. This may or may not be correct, but as the BBC reported:
A survey done in 2001 by the City University of New York Graduate Center found that 85% of Americans identify with some religious faith. In contrast, in Canada and the United Kingdom, two societies often perceived as quite similar to the United States, only 28% and 17% respectively described religion as similarly important in their lives.
This clearly presents us with a paradox – despite the founding of the USA as a secular country, religion has far more of a part in daily life than in England where the entire constitution is based around a central church, a monarch as head of state and religion influencing many aspects of society including law and education.
Over the last few weeks I have been reading the latest book by Richard Dawkins, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Previously, I have read The Blind Watchmaker which goes into great biological detail about evolution, with the specific intention of countering creationism – and it does a very good job. So based on my experiences with that title, I immediately purchased a copy of The God Delusion which takes aspects from all of his books and presents them in a logical format in order to completely disprove religion.
My use of the word “disprove” above is worth elaborating on. This is best explained using a part of the second chapter of the book:
Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way:
- Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, “I do not believe, I know.”
- Very high probability but short of 100%. De facto theist. “I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
- Higher than 50% but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
- Exactly 50%. Completely impartial agnostic. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
- Lower than 50% but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. “I don’t know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.”
- Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
- Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.”
The important distinction here is that many religious people will place themselves (or be placed) in category 1 whereas most atheists will actually be in category 6, not 7. Science can only suggest something beyond reasonable doubt and with that you cannot say that “I know” because there is always a chance that you are wrong, just as there is always a chance that a theory, no matter how many experiments support it, might be disproved. It is also this difference that marks extremism – extremists will not change what they “know/believe” even in the face of absolute proof whereas atheists will always be open to change their view if a persuasive argument is provided or evidence is found to suggest what they believe is wrong.
If you suggest that “beyond reasonable doubt” is not sufficient – despite what science might say there will always be a chance that God exists – then that’s fine, but then you must also apply the same logic when looking at legal cases and by that same logic you must find every single criminal case in favour of the defendant. All criminal cases (at least in England) are concerned with proving “beyond reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty and if you throw aside that level burden of proof then you must also throw aside the legal system we have today.
Equally, just because something cannot be disproved does not mean it exists. For this we use the teapot parable by Bertrand Russell:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existance of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as sacred truth every Sunday, and installed into the minds of children at school, hestitatation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of psychiatrists in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
This is just part of what is covered in The God Delusion. Not only is scientific proof presented that clearly disproves God “beyond reasonable doubt” but logical and sensible theories are put forward for counter arguments such as:
- If there is no God, why be good?
- What are the roots of our morality?
- Where does religion come from?
And perhaps one of the most difficult to defend against – “What’s so wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?”.
This book is good. Extremely good. It is written with a level of arrogance on the part of Dawkins, but unlike the Bible or any other religious document, sermon or teaching, the arrogance is almost completely justified by scientific reasoning. Before reading it I would have considered myself able to engage in an intellectual discussion with a religious believer up to a certain point, but I now feel confident in being able to counter any point raised in favour of religion. I can now say without doubt:
I am an atheist.